Workplace Solutions Training

Training supervisors to be safety conscious

How can I leverage shift supervisors to ensure consistent safety knowledge among frontline workers?

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Responding is Barb Tait, CEO, SafeStart, Belleville, Ontario.

Safety departments tend to be run from the top down, especially at sizable companies. The safety director issues an update to the safety program and then, depending on the company, the new safety measure is communicated in one of two ways: It’s broadcast directly from the director’s office to the entire organization via a memo and a couple of posters, or it trickles down through assistant safety managers and shift supervisors, who disseminate it to workers. In my experience, the latter is far more effective.

Supervisors are in an ideal position to tailor their message to their specific crew of workers and can more readily connect the issue with their specific job functions. They’re also more likely to recognize when employees aren’t quite getting it and can intervene accordingly. Safety directors are forced to deliver a one-size-fits-all message, while supervisors and team leaders can custom-fit the safety mandate to suit their workers. Practically speaking, employees are more likely to listen to supervisors than safety directors.

I should note that there are many cases in which, for one reason or another, safety executives will want to communicate a companywide safety issue themselves. In these instances, supervisors still have a powerful role to play in discussing the issue with workers in the following days and weeks to make sure everyone heard – and remembers – what was said.

Take the time to provide practical resources to help your supervisors help you by preparing toolbox talks and other material about the update or initiative. Give them specific recommendations on how they can support the program with their crew as part of their regular interactions. Ensure supervisors know why the change is happening, and provide compelling information about the benefits to the organization and individuals. As one of our clients recently said, “It’s not good enough to say that we are making this change because OSHA has mandated it.”

One important fact that companies with safety-conscious supervisors have in common: They didn’t get that way by accident. Supervisory roles are ideally positioned to discuss safety issues with frontline employees, but that doesn’t mean all supervisors are equal. And if you want supervisors who can effectively disseminate and reinforce safety knowledge, you’ll have to train them to do the job.

There’s a lot that goes into turning supervisors into strong safety advocates – way too much to cover here – but the bottom line is that you need to find a way to improve their communication skills and baseline safety knowledge. Easier said than done. And if that’s not enough, you should give them plenty of practice in pairing their new skills and knowledge in the workplace.

In my experience, the most efficient approach is a mix of classroom learning (e.g., delivering an overview of how to talk about safety or the ins and outs of concepts such as human factors) and on-the-job practice (spotting human factors in real time and then discussing them with workers).

If that sounds like a substantial undertaking, it’s because it often is. But organizations that have invested in training safety-conscious supervisors typically see decreased injury rates, strong culture, and positive production and operations metrics – all of which lead to better business results. These companies trust their frontline leaders to be the point person for discussing safety, and their employees end up with a much higher baseline of safety knowledge.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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